What’s the best backfield in NFL history?
There are a lot of possibilities, but if the duo the Browns had more than a half-century ago isn’t the choice, then it is certainly on the short list.
From 1958-61, the Browns were able to pair Pro Football Hall of Famers Bobby Mitchell and Jim Brown. They were the perfect complement to one another.
Mitchell, the smaller of the two at 6-foot and 192 pounds, was both fast and quick and had tremendous agility. He could stop on a time and change direction, as such being a nightmare for defenders to try to tackle.
At 6-2 and 232 pounds, Brown was the power back who could turn on the speed when he broke into the secondary.
Both were great pass receivers out of the backfield, adding another dimension to their games.
Defenses couldn’t totally focus on Brown or Mitchell because that would allow the other one free rein to do damage.
But maybe the most impressive way in which they meshed came with the fact that Brown wanted his hands on the ball a lot, and Mitchell acquiesced and checked his ego at the door to allow that to happen. That says all you need to know about what kind of player – and what kind of man – Mitchell was.
So with a limited number of opportunities, Mitchell tried to maximize every one he had.
And he did.
Though he falls a bit short of having the necessary 500 attempts to officially qualify, Mitchell’s career 5.4 yards-per-carry average is the best in Browns history.
His 2,297 career rushing yards are the ninth-highest in club annals, and his 16 career rushing touchdowns are tied for ninth.
Mitchell was at his best rushing-wise in a Nov. 15, 1959 game against the Washington Redskins when he gained 232 yards, tied for the fourth-highest total ever by a Brown. He had just 14 attempts that day, meaning he averaged a staggering 16.57 yards per carry.
That’s the second-highest figure in team history.
The third- and fourth-best single-game rushing averages also belong to Mitchell. He averaged 13.36 yards by gaining 147 yards on 11 carries in 1958 against the Chicago Cardinals, and averaged 11.67 yards by picking up 140 yards in 12 tries in 1961 against the Dallas Cowboys.
As mentioned, Mitchell was also a fine receiver, having 128 career receptions, including a club-leading 45 in 1960 when he also topped the team with six touchdown catches. He was second on the Browns with 35 receptions in 1959.
Adding to his worth to the team was his returning ability. Mitchell is second in club history in career punt return average at 11.24 yards, and is fifth in career kickoff return average at 25.0 yards.
Not bad at all for a seventh-round choice, at No. 84 overall, out of Illinois in the 1958 NFL Draft. A Hot Springs, Ark. native, Mitchell was also a star sprinter in track for the Illini, and there were some concerns by NFL teams that he would forego football for a shot at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. Fortunately for head coach Paul Brown and the Browns, he was committed to football all the way.
Mitchell’s departure from the Browns was historic in regards to Black History Month. He was traded to the Redskins in 1962 for the rights to running back Ernie Davis, whom Washington had drafted No. 1 overall that year. Davis had been the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy when he did so as a senior at Syracuse in 1961 after breaking many of Jim Brown’s records there.
The Redskins switched Mitchell to wide receiver for the final seven seasons of his 11-year NFL career and he was an immediate hit there, leading the league with 72 receptions in that first season of 1962. He finished with 521 career catches for 7,954 yards and 65 touchdowns.
Now 77, Mitchell retired as a player following the 1968 season and then served from 1969-2002 as a front-office executive with the Redskins.